Gilbert Baker was born on 2nd June 1951, in Chanute, Kansas. He grew up in Parsons, Kansas, where his grandmother owned a women’s clothing store. His father was a judge and his mother was a teacher.
Baker’s sister, Ardonna Baker Cook, remembers Gilbert as an artistic child who loved to paint and spent “nights reading under his covers with a flashlight.”
Baker was drafted into the United States Army at 19 and served 2 years from 1970 to 1972. He was stationed as a medic in San Francisco at the beginning of the gay rights movement and lived there as an openly gay man. After his honourable discharge from the military, he worked on the first marijuana legalisation initiative in 1972 and was taught to sew by his fellow activist Mary Dunn.
He used his skill to create banners for gay rights and anti-war protest marches. It was during this time that he met and became friends with Harvey Milk (an American politician and the first openly gay elected official in the history of California).
Drag and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Cleve Jones, the activist and author of “When We Rise,” first met Baker in the 1970s. The two remained friends and collaborators for the rest of Baker’s life. “When Gilbert was in drag, like all queens, he sparkled, he was mischievous, defiant and yet motherly in some strange way.” Extravagance and gender-creative dressing was long a part of Baker’s life, going back to his childhood when he was caught dressing in his Aunt’s dresses.
Jones’ first impression of Baker, was of a “mad queen with long, flowing hair and big bulging eyes.” Jones continues: “Just when you thought he was off his rocker, he’d say something and you’d realize how insanely smart he was.”
As the ’70s passed, the styles for men in San Francisco’s gay community became more tied to traditional notions of masculinity, and drag too was pushed to the margins. Gilbert Baker’s drag, like his politics, wasn’t traditional. Instead of gender-illusion, “pretty” drag, Baker’s humorous approach was revolutionary in both execution and ideology.
He also joined the gay drag activist and performance group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence where men dress in nuns’ habits and take pseudo-religious names. It was founded in San Francisco in 1979 by Ken Bunch, Bill Graham, Fred Brungard and Edmund Garron partially in response to what they saw as the homogenization of the gay community, (the process of making things uniform or similar).
Baker joined the order in 1981, taking the name Sister Chanel 2001, and was a member until 1983. In the years following the Harvey Milk assassination, during the rise of the AIDS epidemic, gay communities in San Francisco and other cities were a frequent target of protests by right-wing religious groups, and the religious groups were an equally frequent counter-protest target of the Sisters.
He described his first public outing:
“My first required appearance began when Sister Boom Boom and Sister Krishna Kosher planned a rally at Union Square. I created a copy of Princess Diana’s wedding gown — in black. Our job was to upstage a Christian fundamentalist revival going on in the little park, held by a group called S.O.S. — Save our Souls — who said that San Francisco was Sodom and Gomorrah. Sister Boom Boom, dressed up like a lion in chains and carrying a whip, was threatening to eat the Christians. … We stayed until the Fundies gave up, and we all sang the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus as they quickly drove back to the suburbs.”
Baker took his Sisters drag on the road with fellow sister Sadie, Sadie, Rabbi Lady to the Academy Awards in 1984. In matching black sequin nuns habits, the pair mixed with movie stars in their signature white face paint as they collected money in a can labelled “Eddie Murphy’s disease,” a reference to the comedian’s homophobic stand-up comedy act. In an unpublished essay, Baker wrote they almost got into the Shrine Auditorium for the awards but at the last moment were “booted out” by the master of ceremonies Army Archerd.
“Gilbert could shmooze his way past barricades into any high-fashion event,” says Bunch. “The gowns were so fabulous people must have thought they were movie stars.”
One of the most vivid costumes is Gilbert Baker’s pink Jesus costume, which consisted of an American flag loincloth and pink body paint. Baker wore the look twice in San Francisco, first to the 1990 Gay Pride Parade and then again in October to protest a fundamentalist Christian convention.
“He had his long hair still in a crown of thorns and carried a pink balsa wood cross,” says Jones. “He wanted to make people howl, and he did.”
Baker officially split with the Sisters in 1983. Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority got hold of images of him in Sisters’ drag and used them to make money. “He stepped back from the Sisters’ as he felt it was only giving ammunition to the right-wing. The group “sainted” Baker at his 2017 memorial service at the Castro Theatre.
But Baker didn’t abandon drag. He protested the Academy Awards again in 1989, this time in a French royal court look, which he had “sewn up with 100 yards of gold metallic lamé,” based on that year’s best-picture nominee “Dangerous Liaisons.” Baker and Sister Scarlot Harlot this time stayed in the seats and stairwells and waved signs at celebrities with slogans like “Come Out Hollywood.” “We got bigger fashion coverage than Cher,” Baker wrote.
Other Art and More
Baker designed displays for Dianne Feinstein, the Premier of China, the presidents of France, Venezuela, the Philippines, the King of Spain, and many others. He also designed creations for numerous civic events and San Francisco Gay Pride. In 1984, he designed flags for the Democratic National Convention.
In 1994, Baker moved to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life. Here, he continued his creative work and activism. That year he created the world’s largest flag (at that time) in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots.
His decision not to trademark or monetise the flag meant he lived most of his life on a relatively modest income generated from sales of his fine art, personally sewn flags, and a 16-year ongoing sponsorship around the Pride Flag with Absolut Vodka.
“He was so proud and amazed at how the rainbow had been embraced across the world,” says Jones. “In the beginning, his art and drag were very confrontational but that evolved and changed as he changed and grew and saw more of the world.”
In 2003, to commemorate the Rainbow Flag’s 25th anniversary, Baker created a Rainbow Flag that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West. After the commemoration, he sent sections of this flag to more than 100 cities around the world. Due to his creation of the rainbow flag, Baker often used the drag queen name “Busty Ross”, alluding to Betsy Ross (who was credited in 1870 with making the first American flag).
In 2012, Baker had a stroke and lost some of his motor skills on his left side, including the ability to paint and sew. Baker apparently packed up 15 trunks worth of fabric and sewing machines and re-taught himself to sew by hand over a summer in Fire Island, N.Y. “He was in so much pain; it never really went away,” says Jones. “But he went on and created hundreds more banners and flags for anyone who wanted them.” He made one such Pride flag for President Barack Obama in 2016.
In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art ranked the rainbow flag as an internationally recognised symbol as important as the recycling symbol.
Concentration Camp Uniform
Among the most symbolically powerful fashion pieces in the GLBT, archive is two different takes on striped concentration camp uniforms worn by gay prisoners. These are believed to be the final fashions Gilbert Baker created.
“That was his reaction to the election of Trump,” says Jones. “He wore the uniform to an anti-Trump protest in Manhattan with a rolling wardrobe cart loaded with concentration camp wear.” “The idea was, ‘Would you like to try one on?’. You’ll be wearing it soon.”
The front of the uniforms is emblazoned with the pink triangle used by the Nazis to identify gay prisoners, the back with the rainbow Baker created to replace the triangle as a symbol for the community.
His final years were spent travelling the world to attend different gay pride celebrations, where he was lauded as a community icon.
Gilbert Baker died at home in his sleep on 31st March 2017 at age 65, in New York City. The New York City medical examiner’s office determined the cause of death was hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Upon Baker’s death, California state senator Scott Wiener said Baker “helped define the modern LGBT movement”.
Gilbert Baker is now considered a seminal figure of gay culture.
As with many others that we’ve covered including Jeanne Manford, Storme DeLarverie, and Christine Jorgensen, in June 2019 Baker was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM).
In June 2019, Paris, France named a square Stonewall Riots Square where a plaque commemorating Baker was installed. The plaque was unveiled by Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, other French officials, and activists of the Stonewall riots. This new plaza is situated in the centre of The Marais, a gay neighbourhood of Paris. This plaque is now part of the heritage of the City of Paris and Parisians and visitors can gather in front of this memorial dedicated to Gilbert Baker.
The Pride Flag
Gilbert Baker first created the Rainbow Flag with a collective in 1978. He refused to trademark it, seeing it as a symbol that was for the LGBT community so that it could be freely reproduced and flown. In 1979, Baker began work at Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco.
The colours on the Rainbow Flag reflect the diversity of the LGBT community. When Baker raised the first rainbow flags at San Francisco Pride on 25th June 1978, it comprised eight symbolic colours:
Thirty volunteers had helped Baker hand-dye and stitch the first two flags in the top-floor attic gallery of the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street in San Francisco. Because using dye in public washing machines wasn’t allowed, they waited until late at night to rinse the dye from their clothes, running a cycle with bleach in the washing machines after leaving.
The design has undergone several revisions. As of 2008, the most common variant consists of six stripes, with the colours red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Baker referred to this version of the flag as the “commercial version”, because it came about due to practical considerations of mass production.
After the assassination of Harvey Milk on 27th November 1978, demand for the rainbow flag greatly increased. To meet demand, the Paramount Flag Company began selling a version of the flag using stock rainbow fabric with seven stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet. As Gilbert Baker ramped up production of his version of the flag, he too dropped the hot pink stripe because the hot pink fabric became too rare and expensive to include.
The rainbow flag lost its turquoise stripe before the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade. When hung vertically from the lamp posts of San Francisco’s Market Street, the centre stripe was obscured by the post itself. As the committee organising the parade wanted to fly the flag in two halves, from the light poles the turquoise stripe was dropped, so it became a six-striped flag with equal halves.